Essays from a master critic on how artistic giants from modernism onward confronted mortality—forging unexpected links between Twain, Woolf, Mahler, Wittgenstein, Beckett, Toni Morrison, and more
While much about modernism remains up for debate, there can be no dispute about the connection between modernist art and death. The long modern moment was and is an age of war, genocide, and annihilation. Two world wars killed perhaps as many as 100 million people, through combat, famine, holocaust, and ghastly attacks on civilians. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is the fifth global pandemic since 1918, with more than a half-million American deaths and counting.
It can hardly come as a surprise, then, that many of the touchstones of modernism reflect on death and devastation. In Philip D. Beidler’s exploration of the modernist canon, he illuminates how these singular voices looked extinction in the eye and tried to reckon with our finitude—and their own. The Great Beyond:Art in the Age of Annihilation catalogs through lively prose an eclectic selection of artists, writers, and thinkers. In 16 essays, Beidler takes nuanced and surprising approaches to well-studied figures—the haunting sculpture by Saint-Gaudens commissioned by Henry Adams for his late wife; Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of Mann’s Death in Venice; and the author’s own long fascination with Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
The threads and recurring motifs that emerge through Beidler’s analysis bridge the different media, genres, and timeframes of the works under consideration. Protomodernists Crane and Twain connect with near-contemporary voices like Sebald and Morrison. Robert MacFarlane’s 21st-century nonfiction about what lies underneath the earth echoes the Furerbunker and the poetry of Gertrud Kolmar. Learned but lively, somber but not grim, The Great Beyond is not a comfortable read, but it is in a way comforting. In tracing how his subjects confronted nothingness, be it personal or global, Beidler draws a brilliant map of how we see the end of the road.